Test of Reasonable Classification – Article 14 of Constitution



“Equality is one of the magnificent corner-stones of Indian democracy.”[1] The expressions ‘Equal protection of laws’ and ‘Equality before law’ have been enshrined in the Constitution of our country. Even though these expressions seem similar, but they do not contain similar meanings. Article 14 aims to provide to all individuals equality in status and opportunity. Article 14 is a free-standing provision and holds the concept of non-discrimination.

Equality Before Law:

The principle of ‘Equality before law’ has been derived from English law, known as Rule of Law. This principle aims to consider all those individuals who are circumstantially alike as equals, even in the privileges conferred and, on the liabilities imposed. It prevents discrimination as well as the discriminatory laws. It is originally a negative concept and seeks to ensure that all individuals are treated in alike manner, and no person should be discriminated based upon their rank, status, etc. and treats everyone equal, subject to the ordinary law of land. However, this principle does not guarantee equality in an absolute manner, but is subject to reasonable derivation from the facts of each case. Varied class of persons require varied treatment. It states that the State is obligated to enforce an equal society through legal process. Thus, the principle basically states that equals should be treated alike and unequals should not be treated alike.[2] Persons who are not equal should not be treated equally as this would lead to inequality and will be thus violative of Article 14.

The principle also has exceptions, such as immunity to foreign diplomats from the judicial jurisdiction, immunity to the President and Governors of States under article 361, Judges and public officers receiving  special privilege and some special groups or interests, such as trade unions also receiving special privileges.

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Equal Protection Of Laws:

The principle of ‘Equal protection of laws’ has a positive approach which states that the application of law in an equal circumstance should be equal and should not be discriminatory against individuals similarly placed. Every individual in an equal situation should be treated in equal manner. Equal protection of laws applies not only to the substantive laws, but also to the procedural laws.[3] The following concept not only favours the natural persons unrestrictedly, but also extends to the juristic persons, such as corporations. Even though article 14 prescribes equality before the law, but all are not equal, subject to circumstances. Thus, the enforcement of a mechanical form of equality may cause injustice.

Doctrine Of Reasonable Classification:

Society consists of people belonging to different classes and belonging to different set of groups. Therefore, it is essential to protect and preserve the rights of all such individuals through the application of laws emphasised upon the reasonable classification to prevent any kind of discrimination. Under the doctrine of reasonable classification, the same law shall not apply every individual but it should be applied to a class of people.

Wherever there is unreasonableness or arbitrariness, there is a denial of Rule of law. Thus, every action of the State requires to be reasonable and non-arbitrary, otherwise the action is declared to be invalid by the court.  ‘Rule of law’ is a concept which provides equality to all before law. It ensures the subjection of every individual to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts, irrespective of their rank and considers no individual to be above the law. The Legislature should make a reasonable classification of circumstances and treat equals in an equal manner. A person alleging lack of equal treatment should establish the prejudicial treatment to the people belonging to an equal class and should also state that the prejudicial treatment was violative of the reasonable object of the Article. While determining the validity of a legislation challenged under Article 14, the facts should be considered in an independent manner and not under a general rule. For any classification to be reasonable, the following points should be considered-

  1. The classification should not be evasive in nature, but should be based upon some real difference which differentiates individuals in an equal class from the others of the same equal class.
  2. The object sought to be achieved under this Article and the differentiation should be corresponding to each other.
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Thus, Article 14 contains two aspects- firstly, it allows the reasonable classification of the circumstance based upon the intelligible differentia, aiming to serve the practical needs of the society; secondly, it ensures fairness and equal treatment and prevents arbitrariness of any kind.[4]

The court in Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University[5] pointed out that “to make a classification, there needs to be an objective for classification. If the objective turns out to be illogical or invalid, then the classification is regarded as unreasonable.”

Thus, there is a requirement of the reasonable classification of legislations for the society to progress. Article 14 allows reasonable classification of persons, objects and transaction by the State in order to make developments in the society.

Doctrine of Arbitrariness:

The doctrine of reasonable classification was applied in various cases, but in the E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu[6] this doctrine was challenged leading to the introduction of a new concept in the judgement. It was held by the Supreme Court that equality is a dynamic concept having various dimensions and thus could not be confined to the traditional limits.

The doctrine of reasonable classification is a legislative or executive action arbitrary in nature and includes the denial of equity.[7] Thus, Article 14 eliminates arbitrariness in the state action and promotes equality and fairness in treatment.

However, the doctrine of arbitrariness faced a lot of criticism too. In H.M. Seervai’s book, “Constitutional Law of India” there appears to be a criticism of the doctrine of arbitrariness – (a) Neglecting the traditional doctrine is wrong, (b) the doctrine of arbitrariness hangs in the air, and (c)  whatever violates equality is not necessarily arbitrary even though arbitrary actions often violate equality.[8]

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Thus, Article 14 is an important aspect of the Constitution which provides for equality of all individuals. There seems to be certain uncertainty regarding the test of arbitrariness for reviewing the constitutionality of legislations, but the judicial pronouncements in the recent years have shown the constitutional permissibility of this doctrine.


Submitted By:

Priyanjali Priyadarshini

[1] Thommen J., in Indra Sawhney v. UOI, AIR 1993 SC 477:1992 Supp (3) SCC 212.

[2] Gauri Shankar v. UOI, AIR 1995 SC 55, at 58 : (1994) 6 SCC 349.

[3] Lachmandas v. State of Bombay, AIR 1952 SC 239.

[4] State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar AIR 1952 SC 75.

[5] Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University, AIR 1989 SC 903 : (1989) 2 SCC 145.

[6] E.P Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu AIR 1974 SCC 555.

[7] R.D Shetty v. International Airport Authority, AIR 1979 SC 1628

[8] H.M Seervai, Constitutional Law of India, 4th Ed, Vol 1.

Author: Priyanjali Priyadarshini,
Tamil Nadu National Law University, 2nd Year

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